The Denmark Rot
Holiday TV offers you no end of familiar surprises. At Christmas, your favourite shows will throw a tree and tinsel in the background and do their best to give you another festive special. The channels will try and put some movies on they're hoping we’ve not all seen before which, in most cases, we have. Especially if they aim for new blockbusters. Gone are the days of the BBC getting the exclusive British TV premiere for the new Spielberg. Still, they try their best. It’s the same at Easter.
A few weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, we were flicking around and passed a rather intense looking programme. It was clearly a drama, being performed on a stage and in front of an audience. A well dressed, well behaved audience at that. I recognised a couple of faces in the cast and was relatively intrigued until I spotted a grave digger and heard the name Horatio.
“Alas…” said the TV.
“Oh, not again.” I said as I quickly hopped to another channel.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to Shakespeare. If anything, I’m fascinated by the popularity of his work so long after his death. Let’s be honest, what doubt riddled author wouldn’t look at Shakespeare and feel a little hope? Of course, Will’s work is kept alive by more than just talent. There’s a hefty amount of tourism and marketing helping grease those particular wheels. Along with a lot of dusty textbooks waiting in every school, ready to form the bedrock for everyone’s opinion. I remember studying Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet at school. We watched the tacky 70's movie versions of both of them and, particularly with R & J, the teachers made us do little reenactments of the famous scenes as they constantly tried to convince us how relevant the play was to our own lives as teens. Sure, everyone goes to school with someone who calls himself The Prince of Cats, right? Give me The Scottish Play over the star crossed lovers any day. It comes with ghosts, murder and madness. Let alone a few superstitions of its own. Romeo and Juliet is just the story of how two hapless kid’s pointless deaths might accidentally bring an end to a constant turf war. It really should be called Teen Suicide: The Silver Lining.
When I got to college we studied Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and The Tempest. Much Ado at least let us watch the Kenneth Branagh version, which is still great. Especially when you can snicker at Keanu really giving his all at playing the bad guy. It’s just a shame we didn’t have the brilliant Joss Whedon version back then. You know, the little black and white movie he shot in his house in between Avengers movies. As you do. The Tempest is still one of the most painfully and thinly veiled pieces of writing out there. For every time someone mutters about Stephen King writing about writers, you can point them at Prospero and tell them to play Spot the Sad Old Playwright. It’s not even meta. It’s moping.
Then there was Hamlet. Ah, Hamlet. The mopey prince. The indecisive hero. For all of Shakespeare’s many, many popular works there is something inescapable about Hamlet. He’s a black hole in the fabric of theatre. Get too close and you’ll find yourself sitting through four hour production after four hour production. You’ll be presented with all kinds of interpretations and settings. You’ll drown in clever stage design and famous TV faces, lining up to play the Dane. Time will seem to stop…and not necessarily in a good way.
Hamlet is the consummate theatre lover’s play. Which apparently means it isn’t allowed to be fun. It’s the Sgt Pepper of snobbery. The one everyone knows, with plenty of quotable (and mis-quotable) lines. If there’s a play they’ll shoot into space, it will be Hamlet. If there’s a play that survives a nuclease blast, it’ll be Hamlet. It’s everywhere and it’s clearly not stopping. The titular prince has clearly found a way to both be and not be. Sure, he dies at the end, but my word how often he respawns. Sometimes for just a round of applause or a matinee performance.
Maybe it doesn’t help that I first approached Hamlet in a classroom. We read our way through it. Which was like pulling teeth. The looping questions and schemes are pretty stale in print. The metaphors are all heavy lifting. The monologues are tedious, particularly when recited by a theatre student in front of other students. It all starts to numb your brain. The plays within plays. The glut of the action saved for the final pages.
We studied those soliloquies over and over again. We debated the rational of his actions. It’s staggering to think William wrote the play to entertain the masses, but now it feels like the mascot of theatre elitism. You rarely get a good Hamlet cheap and you rarely get a good Hamlet often. There was a point, early on its life onstage, where people would laugh at the madness and cheer at the deaths. Now we put on a shirt and a tie and see where they go psychologically within the prince’s problem. Was that a ghost he saw before him or was the lad projecting. Is he only mad when the wind blows in a certain direction or would it be easier for all of us if he was bound in a nutshell? The laughs and jeers have definitely died down to a polite whisper of approval and debate these days. I think it was Ian McKellen who said he struggled to perform some of the more iconic lines as he could hear the audience speaking them along with him and they kept getting ahead.
I’m starting to wonder if we need a moratorium on Hamlet for a while. Haven’t we watched him question and murder enough? Surely we’ve reached the maximum required quantities of drowned Ophelia’s by now.
I never did flick back and watch Andrew Scott’s Hamlet. Which surprises me in a way, because I’m a fan of Mr Scott. I love his rabid, camp Jim Moriarty. I still think he would’ve made a better choice for a surprise Blofeld in Spectre and, when I saw play him Paul McCartney in a TV movie about John Lennon, I fretted the BBC cloning famous faces. Still, I couldn’t face another round of Hamlet tormenting Polonius or standing behind Claudius when he was at prayer and debating the morality of murder. According to an old English Literature tutor of mine, that’s one of the great moments in dramatic tension. For me, it feels worryingly like posh panto. He’s behind you, Claud!
I think it’s time to let Hamlet not be for a while. Let’s break back into Will’s complete works and find some other stuff for people to watch for a few years. There’s plenty there. Just ask The Globe, sitting quite happily down by the Thames. Or the slightly posher RSC, glamping beside the Avon. I’m sure there are shows they’d rather do for a change. Okay, Hamlet might seduce a star away from TV and an established director might have a brainwave about doing the monologues differently, but it’s going to add up to the same thing. Some new people are going to learn just how uncomfortable theatre seating really is.
In a world where Marvel and DC are powering on with the mass translation of their own work onto the big and small screen, there’s a definite sense of critical fatigue when it comes to superhero movies. The same happened with westerns, many years ago. The motifs and the genre get a little much for the critic to bear and they get people thinking they want change. How many Marvel movies get a begrudging three star review that signs off with the lament of ‘I wonder how many more of these we have to watch’.
Why does no one ever seem to say that about Hamlet? For some reason the rotten world of Denmark appears to get a free pass as another young, fresh face from the telly lofts a skull out of a grave and laments a dead jester. It feels rare that anyone ever dares suggest that this whole To Be or Not to Be thing is getting overdone. People will moan about Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap or any number of famous musicals before they turn their nose up at the good old Hamlet. Why is that? Surely Shakespeare himself would like us to delve a little deeper into his portfolio. There’s plenty of other great roles in there.
Or, hey, here’s a thought: let’s change it up beyond the time period we’re setting the next Hamlet down in. Movie studios want all our stories to live in shared universes now and Shakespeare did tell us that all the world’s a stage.
Maybe he was crafting the first ever expanded universe and we never spotted it. Perhaps the bard never got around to plotting out his own infinity war. Or maybe his contemporaries made sure to burn those pages. You know, now that I think about it, I’ve never sat and kept watching a Hamlet after the curtain closes. What if there is a post cast bow scene? My god. Maybe that’s why people keep going back.
An Iron Man suit, an Iron Man suit. My kingdom for an Iron Man suit.